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Johnson & Johnson's baby powder.
Court ruling could help J&J defeat St. Louis talc lawsuits
25 February 2019, 12:05 PM

A Missouri Supreme Court ruling on Talc lawsuits could reduce the liability and number of large trials Johnson & Johnson faces over allegations its talc products, including baby powder, cause cancer.

The ruling will likely offer some respite to the healthcare conglomerate as it deals with growing pressure over the safety of its talc products, some defence lawyers said.

The company revealed in its annual report on Wednesday that it had received subpoenas from the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission related to talc litigation.

Some plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, played down the impact of the ruling.

It was a trial in St. Louis’s 22nd Circuit Court, brought by 21-plaintiffs from outside of the city whose cases were joined to that of a single St. Louis resident that in July produced a record $4.69 billion talc verdict against J&J. The company is facing several more such lawsuits in St. Louis.

However, Missouri’s High Court on February, 13th ruled in a separate talc case that allowed a non-resident to participate in joined cases was “a clear and direct violation” of state law barring the use of joinder – combining two or more cases – to allow courts to hear cases they otherwise could not.

Most state courts can only hear cases involving plaintiffs or defendants from that state or alleging injuries occurring within their jurisdiction. The U.S. Supreme Court strengthened those restrictions in a 2017 decision.

But the St. Louis court had allowed out-of-state residents to continue to sue New Jersey-based J&J through liberal use of joinder.

In the case that produced the July verdict, 18 of the plaintiffs were from outside Missouri and three were from outside the city of St. Louis. Of the roughly 700 talc cases filed in St. Louis, only 40 involve Missouri residents, according to court filings.

If the February, 13th ruling closes off the St. Louis court to non-resident claims, J&J may have a stronger hand defending itself in smaller talc cases spread out among other, potentially less plaintiff-friendly state and federal courts.

“There’s no real way of reading this decision other than this court clearly saying you can’t join claims if the injury did not occur in the venue,” said Mark Cheffo, a New York-based product liability defence lawyer not involved in talc litigation.

J&J in a statement said it was pleased with the decision. “One claim that is properly before a court cannot provide a basis for drawing into a trial other claims that are not. We believe that decision is clearly correct, and we continue to believe that the science doesn’t support plaintiffs’ claims,” the company said, declining further comment.

IMPACT UNCLEAR

Some plaintiffs’ lawyers said the February, 13th  ruling was not as definitive as Cheffo suggests.

“If defendants are celebrating this ruling as the end of St.Louis mass tort, they have not read the entire Missouri case law,” said Eric Holland, a St. Louis-based plaintiff lawyer involved in the talc litigation.

Holland pointed to a 2016 Missouri Supreme Court decision that upheld a $38-million verdict in a pharmaceutical product liability case the defendant claimed had been improperly joined. The court let the result stand, saying that even an improper joinder did not render the trial unfair to defendants.

Though the 2016 ruling involved a case already decided, Holland and other plaintiffs’ lawyers said they planned to argue its fairness analysis also applies to out-of-state talc claims in cases yet to go to trial.

They said they would also argue joining the cases was the most efficient use of judicial resources.

Defense lawyers said the February, 13th decision would likely mean dismissal or severing of the out-of-state claims from four upcoming multi-plaintiff cases scheduled for trial in St. Louis. Two of the cases were halted by the Missouri Supreme Court ahead of its ruling.

Holland and other plaintiff lawyers said they would challenge J&J requests to sever or dismiss talc cases by arguing the February, 13th decision did not overrule the 2016 ruling.

Cheffo said the 2016 ruling could make it harder for J&J to overturn the July verdict and its record penalty because the company would have to prove the joinder led to an unfair trial.

‘FORUM SHOPPING’ BY OUT-OF-STATE PLAINTIFFS

The St. Louis court has been a venue for more talc trials and has seen larger verdicts than any other jurisdiction. Outside of St. Louis, the only other significant talc verdicts against J&J to date have come in lawsuits filed by individual plaintiffs in New Jersey and California, where the company is currently facing jury verdicts totalling $142-million.

A Los Angeles jury delivered a $417-million talc verdict against J&J in 2017, but the judge threw out the award weeks later as unsupported by the evidence. All talc verdicts against J&J are on appeal.

The St. Louis court has a history of issuing large punitive damages against companies and has often been criticized by business groups as allowing “forum-shopping” by out-of-state plaintiffs.

While J&J faces some trials brought by individuals in other jurisdictions, the multi-plaintiff St. Louis cases are the largest and have the most potential to produce additional billion-dollar verdicts.

Plaintiffs allege that the talc in Johnson’s baby powder and other J&J products causes ovarian cancer, or that asbestos contamination in the talc causes ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Asbestos is a known carcinogen linked to mesothelioma.

J&J and its talc supplier, Imerys Talc America, aco-defendant in the litigation, deny the allegations, saying numerous studies and tests by regulators worldwide have shown their talc to be safe and asbestos-free.

Reuters on Dec, 14th  published a report detailing that J&J knew that the talc in its raw and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos from the 1970s into the early 2000s – test results it did not disclose to regulators or consumers.

J&J is currently facing roughly 13,000 lawsuits over talc, most of which have been consolidated in federal court in New Jersey. Many plaintiffs’ lawyers have fought to keep cases out of federal court, which they feel favors corporate defendants.

Three juries have rejected claims that Baby Powder was tainted with asbestos or caused plaintiffs’ mesothelioma. Five other juries have failed to reach verdicts, resulting in mistrials.

In a statement, Imerys Talc America said the Missouri ruling affirmed legal arguments it has made in litigation for the last four years. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on February ,13th , saying it lacked the financial clout to defend against talc lawsuits.

Tennis star Serena Williams
Cartoon of tennis star Serena Williams not racist – Australia watchdog
25 February 2019, 11:47 AM

A cartoon published in an Australian newspaper that depicted tennis star Serena Williams having a temper tantrum at the U.S. Open last year was not racist, Australia’s media watchdog said on Monday.

The caricature of an angry Williams – with exaggerated lips and tongue and a wild plume of curly hair rising above her head as she stomped on her tennis racket – was condemned as racist by civil rights leaders, celebrities and fans.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper and cartoonist Mark Knight denied the image was racist.

The Australian Press Council said on Monday the cartoon did not breach its standards of practice.

“The Council considers that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point, but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms. Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy’,” the council said, using an Australian phrase for a child having a temper tantrum.

The image was “a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers,” the council said in a statement.

The newspaper said the cartoon was intended as a lampoon of the tennis star’s angry exchanges with chair umpire Carlos Ramos at the U.S. Women’s Singles final in New York.

Williams clashed with Ramos over penalties she thought she did not deserve and ultimately lost to Naomi Osaka.

The U.S. based National Association of Black Journalists said at the time the cartoon was “repugnant on many levels” and “not only exudes racist, sexist caricatures of both women, but Williams’ depiction is unnecessarily sambo-like.”

“Sambo,” a derogatory term for a black person, is the name of a folkloric figure usually depicted with an exaggerated mouth and an ape-like stance.

The Council acknowledged that some readers found the cartoon offensive.

“However … there was a sufficient public interest in commenting on behaviour and sportsmanship during a significant dispute between a tennis player with a globally high profile and an umpire at the U.S. Open final,” it said.

Zimbabwe struggles to convince doubters as it launches new currency
25 February 2019, 10:54 AM

Zimbabwe’s government has a trust problem as it introduces a discounted currency in a bid to reverse chronic cash shortages that left people struggling to get hold of basic goods.

Business people and economists welcomed last week’s decision to abandon an unrealistic dollar peg for the country’s surrogate bond notes and electronic dollars, which were merged into a new currency called the Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) dollar.

But they expressed doubts about whether the government has the fiscal and monetary discipline to stick to its commitment to lower the budget deficit and keep inflation in check.

“There is nothing to stop Zimbabwe printing money with this new currency,” said Jee-A van der Linde, an analyst at South Africa-based NKC African Economics.

“The government has basically kicked the can down the road in recent years by trying to stimulate the economy through excessive spending.”

Zimbabwe’s currency woes have undermined President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s efforts to win back foreign investors who were side-lined under his ousted predecessor, Robert Mugabe.

The last time Zimbabwe had its own currency, a decade ago, Mugabe’s government was able to turn on the printing presses to fund higher salaries for government workers, curry favour with the military and pay political opponents – with disastrous economic consequences.

Residents of the capital, Harare, now wait outside banks for hours to withdraw a maximum of around $30 in surrogate money or collect remittances from relatives abroad. Snaking queues have become the norm at petrol stations because of a shortage of fuel.

Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube last week pledged to contain public spending and reiterated the importance of the independence of the central bank. Yet, investors and Zimbabweans remain concerned that, should Mnangagwa’s government come under political or military pressure, it may revert to the tricks of the past.

Some also fear that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), the country’s central bank, will be unwilling to loosen its grip over the currency as its governor, John Mangudya, is thought to oppose the move to abandon the dollar peg.

“It’s quite clear that the minister of finance wants a liberalised currency regime, whereas the governor of the Reserve Bank doesn’t,” said Eddie Cross, a Zimbabwean economist and former opposition lawmaker.

Whether Zimbabwean policymakers can convince their doubters, both in financial markets and on the streets, will be central to the success or failure of the new RTGS dollar.

If Zimbabweans begin to use banks instead of the black market to exchange any U.S. banknotes they have stashed under their mattresses, then the government could start to rebuild its foreign currency reserves by buying those dollars from banks.

That could give it the wherewithal to re-launch the Zimbabwean dollar when the economy has turned a corner.

Zimbabwe ditched its own currency for the U.S. dollar and other currencies in 2009, after hyperinflation reached 500-billion% the previous year.

But as a chronic hard currency shortage worsened, it introduced a parallel system of bond notes and electronic dollars, nicknamed “zollars.” The substitute currencies were pegged at 1:1 to the U.S. dollar but traded at a discount on the black market.

MAKE OR BREAK

A key test for the RTGS dollar comes on Monday, when many Zimbabwean banks will buy and sell RTGS dollars on the inter bank market for the first time. Some large firms will also be able to buy foreign currency from banks, but it is not clear how much or on what terms.

Many Zimbabweans are skeptical that the latest monetary intervention will reverse the crisis.

“The government has changed things over and over again, “said Godfrey Chinani, who is worried that customers will no longer be able to afford the car parts he sells from a cramped shop in downtown Harare.

He wishes Zimbabwe had switched to the rand instead, as he buys his goods mainly from South Africa.

“People get RTGS as salaries, but when you convert it to rand or U.S. dollars it is worth nothing,” he said. “It won’t work.”

The central bank sold U.S. dollars to a handful of banks at around 2.5 RTGS dollars on Friday, an effective devaluation of 60%. More than $5-million changed hands on the inter bank market, a senior RBZ official told The Standard newspaper.

In the coming weeks, the new currency is expected to weaken towards 3.5 to the dollar, the level at which bond notes have been trading on the black market.

PRICE PRESSURES

Many Zimbabweans fear a return to the hyperinflation era that prevailed during part of Mugabe’s tenure if the RTGS dollar sinks much beyond that point. Inflation already hit a 10-year high of 57% in January, and some public servants say the currency devaluation means the government should raise their salaries by several times.

Authorities have pledged to control the currency’s slide as part of a “managed float,” but how they intend to do that remains a mystery.

The central bank said last week it had secured “sufficient lines of credit” to launch the RTGS. Analysts are scratching their heads as to where the money could have come from.

“People are bound to ask what backs this new currency,” said van der Linde. “It’s no wonder people are distrustful.”

Informal currency traders in downtown Harare said they were waiting to see how the new currency trades on Monday before they change their rates.

POLITICAL SOLUTION

Analysts say one way for Mnangagwa to build confidence in his economic reforms would be to try to mend a deep political rift with the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Mnangagwa narrowly defeated MDC leader Nelson Chamisa in an election last year which the opposition says was rigged but which Mnangagwa says he won fairly.

A violent security crackdown on post-election protests and on demonstrations last month against a major fuel hike have hardened international attitudes towards Mnangagwa’s government and deterred much-needed investment.

“An economic solution on its own, without being backed by apolitical solution, won’t take us to sustainable economic development,” said Eldred Masunungure, a politics professor at University of Zimbabwe.

“Mnangagwa has not yet built enough trust to re-launch the Zimbabwean dollar. But he is testing the waters.”

Carl Icahn.
Caesars in talks with Icahn about new CEO
25 February 2019, 10:20 AM

U.S. casino operator Caesars Entertainment Corp is in talks to offer Carl Icahn a role in selecting its new CEO as part of an agreement that would also give the billionaire investor board seats, people familiar with the matter said on Sunday.

The negotiations come after Icahn disclosed a 9.8% stake in Caesars on Tuesday and said he could nominate a slate of directors to the company’s board.

Icahn also asked Caesars to launch a process to explore a sale. The company responded on Wednesday that all the deals it had explored thus far undervalued it and did not create enough value for shareholders, but noted that it will continue to evaluate strategic alternatives presented to it.

Icahn has proposed Anthony Rodio, the CEO of privately held casino gaming company Affinity Gaming, as the successor to Mark Frissora, who is due to step down as Caesars CEO later this year, the sources said.

Rodio was previously CEO of Tropicana Entertainment Inc, another casino and resort operator that Icahn sold last year to peer Eldorado Resorts Inc for $1.850-billion.

Caesars already has a shortlist of CEO candidates and has indicated to Icahn that it is willing to consider Rodio as well, the sources said. As an alternative, the company could offer Rodio a role in overseeing its operations, some of the sources added.

Caesars does not currently have a chief operating officer, although some of these duties are performed by its president, Tom Jenkin.

Caesars is open to Icahn having a say in the selection of the company’s new CEO, as he has requested, the sources said.

Caesars is also open to giving Icahn board representation, the sources said, although the number of board seats and the names and titles of those filling them are still under negotiation, the sources said. Icahn could receive a significant minority of the board’s 12-seats as part of any deal, the sources said.

The deadline for Icahn to nominate his own board directors expires on March, 1st. If an agreement between Caesars and Icahn is not reached this week, the company may extend the nomination deadline or continue to negotiate with Icahn even if he files a board slate for election, the sources said.

The sources asked not to be identified because the negotiations are confidential. Caesars and Affinity Gaming declined to comment, while Icahn did not respond to a request for comment.

Caesars said on Thursday that it expected “to continue a constructive dialogue” with Icahn. Clinching a deal with Icahn as early as the end of this week would allow the company to avoid a proxy contest over the composition of its board.

Deal Attempts

On Friday, another top investor in Caesars, hedge fund Canyon Partners LLC, also called on the company to run an “open sale process”. While Canyon supports Icahn’s cause, there are currently no talks with Caesars to give Canyon board representation, one of the sources said. Canyon declined to comment.

Caesars, whose casinos include the Harrah’s and Horseshoe brands, emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 after failing to cope with some $25-billion in debt. The company now has a market capitalization of $6-billion. Its debt at the end of December totalled $9.10-billion.

Last year, Caesars rejected a merger approach by Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire owner of Golden Nugget Casinos. That deal would essentially have been structured as an acquisition by Caesars given its larger size. Eldorado Resorts, which is also smaller than Caesars with a market value of $3.8-billion, also explored a bid for Caesars last year but never made an offer, according to the sources.

Icahn has owned a number of casinos over the years, although his only remaining property is Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in New Jersey’s Atlantic City, which has been closed since 2014.

Edenvale High School
Edenvale shooting suspects to appear in court
25 February 2019, 9:55 AM

Six suspects, who were arrested following a robbery and shootout at Edenvale High school East of Johannesburg last week, are expected to appear in the Germiston Magistrate’s Court on Monday.

Four suspects were initially arrested last week, while another two suspects were apprehended over the weekend.

Two alleged robbers were shot dead on the scene. The suspects are facing charges of business robbery, possession of unlicensed firearms and attempted murder.

Gauteng Police spokesperson, Kay Makhubele says, “There are two people who were arrested over the weekend. The Uber taxi driver who was alleged to have been hijacked during the shootout at the school, and another suspect who was hiding in Edenvale. This makes the number of 6 suspects to be arrested. These suspects will appear this morning (Monday) at Germiston Magistrates Court.”

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